Brand Building for A/E Firms

While reading posts on a LinkedIn group for architects, I came across the article below on branding and felt compelled to respond and comment on what was being said (see text in bold labeled “MoM”).

branding-image

Building. Branding. Buying.

By Arianna Leopard
Business Development Manager
AB Design Studio

Branding. Marketing. Business Development. What does this mean? It means you day trade attention and build businesses. Most people do not market in the year they actually live in.

MoM: Not really sure what is meant by “day trade attention and build business,” but if in the next sentence the author is trying to make a distinction between traditional marketing and digital marketing then I would say many companies do use digital or present-day (year) marketing strategy and tactics, but not always in an effective manner and or in accordance with best practice.  For a firm to have a website, this, in and of itself, qualifies as present-day marketing. I believe traditional marketing tactics have a place within professional services firms, but they need to be part of a more comprehensive strategy, which also includes digital.  

Boosting online visibility has never been more important. As a result, the priority for firms is building a unique brand and gaining credibility.

MoM: Yes, boosting online visibility is an important part of a firm’s overall marketing strategy, but building a unique brand and gaining credibility doesn’t automatically translate into increased visibility online. A firm can have the most unique brand in the world, but it might not have a meaningful presence online. By the same token, a firm might have a great deal of credibility among clients and prospects, but it might not have a meaningful presence online. With brand in place a firm can then use a variety of traditional and digital marketing tactics (e.g., social media, public relations, thought leadership, content, search, links, mobile, etc.) to elevate its presence on the Internet. Brand and or credibility does not do this alone, it takes a lot more and different types of heavy lifting.

No longer can companies create brands using old school tactics.

MoM: Question to the author, why can’t old school tactics be used and how are old school tactics being defined? Does this mean that being innovative, first-to-market, client-focused, service-obsessed, exceptional quality, competitive price, interesting company or product/service back story, offering a product/service that satisfies a need in a unique way, etc., won’t work for a company any longer to help build its brand? Since when did these various aspects become old school and or non-relevant?  

In this smart era, the traditional form of branding does not work, not at all.

MoM: I am not certain what is meant by “traditional form of branding.” Brand management is brand management. How a company markets, promotes and communicates its brand to consumers, B2B or B2C, is something else. If the author was trying to say that traditional ways of marketing to promote and communicate a firm’s brand no longer works, I beg to differ. A firm can promote and communicate through a magazine print ad (traditional) or product packaging (traditional) , as well as it can through a mobile app (or, in the author’s words, smart era).

I have always felt a sort of kinship towards real estate and [architectural] design professionals because, to be great in that industry, you have to have some real entrepreneurial tendencies. Marketing RE/A&E requires owning the story around the property, lifestyle and locale. And social media can provide low-cost leverage.

Social media, or the internet as I call it, requires that business leaders start thinking like small-town shop owners. This means taking the long view to gauge progress. It means allowing the personality, heart and soul of the people who operate the business to show. The acquisition of clients might be on the verge of being mapped, but the battlefield is going to be retention and repeat business.

MoM: Yes, if a person wishes to create, operate and manage their own real estate or architectural firm they should have an entrepreneurial spirit. That’s a given and goes a long way. If a person does start their own firm then the entrepreneur in them needs to understand the need, importance and value of marketing, and that it takes time to implement a marketing plan in order to realize results. Marketing is multi-faceted and complex at times, and a firm and its owner(s) are best served when they recognize that no one marketing tactic, or tactics, is a silver bullet to success. Marketing is a much needed function and process of business that, much like the designing of a new building, evolves over time. Additionally, it takes resources, talent and money, as well as a commitment and buy-in from the top down in order to succeed.

It is intriguing to see other things besides Facebook and Twitter take hold. The maturity of Tumblr as a real player is exciting. Pinterest has proved to be a major player. Instagram is a major player. SnapChat and Vine, try to vie to be the next thing. Today, brand building is important for online visibility.

MoM: What the author fails to mention is that each social media platform speaks to its own demographic. SnapChat has great market penetration for people under 30, but why would this matter much to a B2B architectural design firm? Yes, having a presence online helps to build and elevate a brand, but a firm needs to be careful how they use the Internet, or more specifically social media, to do so. In addition, having an online presence is just one component of communicating and promoting a brand to a target audience. 

Here are some of the strategies for marketing your brand online:

Build Awareness about the Product/Services

Some firms do not want to move away from conventional marketing to digital marketing. This presents an opportunity to focus on marketing while the competition is preoccupied with the product/service. Instead of showcasing the service, focus on the value of those services, what problems you solve and the value of your offering. This can be done achieved with content marketing for all the digital platforms. Attention Architects – you all design spaces to code. Show that you design spaces that remain in high demand, that do not result in stagnant design, that people continue to speak about and that generate profitability for clients.

MoM: What, I believe, the author is trying to say is that firms should embrace digital marketing, as opposed to more traditional forms of marketing (i.e., marketing offline). Yes, they should, but traditional forms of marketing still work very well if applied correctly and in a relevant, meaningful and integrated way.

Yes, content marketing can certainly help to build brand, especially when done from a thought leadership or unique content perspective. Here, the firm can speak more to problems, needs and solutions, as opposed to simply discussing the products and services that are offered. Instead of merely showing finished project images, it would be of greater value to a prospective client if they could understand the challenges that were faced in the design or construction of a structure and how the firm overcame those challenges, or to understand a firm’s perspective on a topic of interest within the industry. This type of content, pushed out through targeted social media, public relations, events, etc. is what helps build brand.   

Be Consistent in Your Approach

Every firm has a brand value, but it is each firm’s choice on whether to improve and dictate its brand image or leave it to everyone else to decide. It takes time to build a brand. The whole process requires proper strategy and consistent implementation.

Logos and accent walls do not mean you have a brand. It mean you have graphics and a color of choice. Before branding your business, ask yourself one question: “What is my business all about?” Ensure that what you are doing and how you are feeling align. These guys have a brand.

MoM: Yes, firms need to actively and consistently manage their brand image, and it is important for a newly created business to think long and hard about the image they wish to project into the marketplace. But brand goes beyond corporate colors, logos, fonts, images, layouts, etc. Brand is what lies at the heart of a company. Look at firms, such as Apple, Ritz Carlton, Google, Tesla and, in the A/E industry, a firm like Arup. These firms offer innovative and market-leading products and services, but when you peel away the outer layer, you see that brand transcends product and service and goes to the core of the company’s culture, beliefs, mission and values. Brand can almost be equated with a company’s personality.

Use The Power of Case Studies

What is the first thing you do when you think about enrolling in a product or service? First, you Google. Second, you ask friends or relatives about relevancy. Sales and business development does not need to spend all their time talking about the benefits of what they are selling. In today’s world, customers want to understand the buying process backed by proven case studies. By showing live examples, you separate yourself from the other slick salespeople. In every proposal, include testimonials. Do not tell people you are the best, let former consumers of your products/services tell people your value is worth the time and price tag.

MoM: Yes, case studies and testimonials do a great job of explaining a project and how a client was satisfied with the firm’s body of work, but what if everyone else does case studies/testimonials? How does this help to set the brand a part? What has not been mentioned or asked until now is, how does a firm truly differentiate its brand? Sure it’s one thing to build a brand and increase its presence in the marketplace or online, but this needs to coincide with differentiating the brand from others. Here, I go back to what I referred to above as “old school tactics.” By making use of these characteristics a firm can start to differentiate itself, and its brand, from the competition.

As more and more architecture firms come to realize the importance and need for proactive and integrated (i.e., using a combination of channels and mediums) marketing, many do not recognize that branding and brand management are parts of this exercise. As many firms make use of principal and partner names to represent the firm, these names then become the brand itself and those names need to stand for something. In the consumer goods world, the Coke brand means something different than the Pepsi brand, the Kenmore brand means something different than the Viking brand and the Rolls Royce brand means something different than the Ferrari brand.  Brand, even for archiectects and other professionals, serves as a point of distinction, differentiation and perception, and should not be minimized or thought of lightly. This, then, starts to speak to brand value, which is a whole other topic to discuss. 

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